Marketing Spin of Academic Research

Legal marketers must have a little common ground with those who do public relations in Universities — taking important (yet questionably dry) material, and making it both understandable and interesting. And perhaps more important, fine tuning the message presentation for each intended audience.

Case in point, a recent study that came out of Wake Forest comparing pupil dilation response on left-side vs right-side photos (for those interested — your left side is always golden according to the research).

Let’s start with the PubMed link above, and look at the title: Emotive hemispheric differences measured in real-life portraits using pupil diameter and subjective aesthetic preferences. And of course, the abstract is equally riveting. But, it’s specific, accurate and factual. All the things we expect from academic research. And for its intended audience, a perfect presentation.

As we move outside of academia, however, the message surrounding this research gets noticeably more sensational.

To begin, a site like will re-write this study for practitioners or educated consumers. The level of detail drops only slightly, but the illustrative applications and practical stories are already starting to emerge. As a bit of a side-note, many Academics react to the sensationalism of research in a manner similar to how some lawyers do for legal topics. The dismissive phrase ‘pop psychology’ isn’t uncommon.

Next step down, we see coverage in local media and magazines. To illustrate, here’s a Time article titled, Which side is your good side? Here comes the Science; or similar coverage in Forbes.

And finally, we end up… well. Here:

Different strokes for different folks? Indeed. But the question I keep coming back to is this: How do we benefit as a society, if our Universities bury their research among a closed group of two to five thousand academics sprinkled around the globe? Not very much, I’d say.

Message counts. So does presentation. And ultimately, visibility is an incredibly important factor. If we have to sensationalize, or make something fun — and tell me you didn’t enjoy Telling Vic Everything — then I’m fine with it. Important messages might otherwise get swept under the mat.

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  1. I do not agree with what I see as your assumption that academia is purposely keeping results a secret through limited accessibility (as per “How do we benefit as a society, if our Universities bury their research among a closed group of two to five thousand academics sprinkled around the globe?”). The problem is that with every step taken to make the content understandable to non-experts, some accuracy is sacrificed. The conclusions of the study (not that I pretend to understand it completely) are much more detailed and subtle than “everyone’s best side is their left side”. (In fact, I think that’s blatantly false. The abstract suggests that the evidence is that there is a strong correlation, not a 100% correlation.) This is not to say that knowledge transfer shouldn’t happen but that it would be better to bring the reader up to the info a little bit more than taking the info down to the level of the reader. How do we beneit as a society if the research that our academics produce is translated out of all or most of it’s meaning? Not very much, I’d say.